SNEAK PEEK: Inside the now-way-cooler South County Regional Library

Plus: Is anyone paying attention to 2040 Comprehensive Plan?; Charlotte on 'SNL'; Covid numbers fall; Ledger managing editor wins award; 22-year-old Matthews commissioner goes viral on TikTok

Today’s Charlotte Ledger is sponsored by Carroll Financial, one of the Charlotte region’s oldest and largest family-owned, independent financial planning and investment management firms:

REVIEW: An impressive makeover for Charlotte’s busiest library branch 📚📗📘📕📖 — Top 5 most welcome new features

T is for “teal” and “teens” in this second floor area devoted to teen library stans in the South County Regional Library. There’s even a “teen loft” adjacent to this open area, where post-Covid the library can host college-prep webinars, gaming events and teen meet-ups. (Interior photos courtesy of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library; exterior photo by Cristina Bolling)

by Cristina Bolling

Hang onto your reading glasses: the South County Regional Library reopens today after a 15-month top-to-bottom $11M renovation that will send a shiver down the spine of bibliophiles and thrill those looking for new spaces to hold meetings or cozy up with a laptop or toddler.

Some have called it the most anticipated Charlotte Mecklenburg Library reopening of 2021 — and The Ledger was there ahead of time for an exclusive sneak peek. And with the library system’s plans for new branches uptown and in University City, it’s more than a glimpse into a single building … it’s a view into Charlotte’s exciting librarying future.

The library clocks in at 33,800 s.f. — or an astounding 18x the size of Camp North End’s Leah & Louise restaurant. It gained nearly 1,100 s.f. with the renovation.

And every square inch of the library at Rea and Pineville-Matthews roads has been brightened, redesigned and reimagined, from the parking lot approach path to the upstairs study rooms, all with the goal of making the library meet the changing demands of what the community wants it to be.

South Charlotte residents are among the most book-bosomed in Charlotte — so much so, that the South County branch is the busiest in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library system, with more than 1 million books and media items checked out every year, said branch leader Laura Highfill. In fact, South County handles one-fifth of the circulation for the entire 22-branch system.

But it’s more than a home for bookworms. Beyond a curated, robust offering of some 75,000 books and media, the demand for community meeting spaces large and small led architects and designers to create a place where teens have their own hangout space, and early voters can cycle through without clogging the library’s flow. Young or old, there’s a place for you here.

The library didn’t re-open in time for Library Shelfie Day (that’s always on the fourth Wednesday in January, a tradition started by the New York Public Library in 2014), but fear not — there’s a parking lot sculpture that makes the perfect Instagrammable backdrop.

Be warned: due to Covid restrictions, what you’ll experience starting today is a fragment of what the library will become once life returns to somewhat-normal. For now, only 50 visitors are allowed in at a time to browse, check out materials, and leave — no sitting down at a work station, no children’s story times or homeowners association meetings to attend just yet. Consider it like a delectable amuse-bouche while you await the satisfying main course.

The full reopening in all its glory will probably be here before we know it. And while we wait for it, these are — in the words of the iconic Julie Andrewsa few of our favorite things we spotted during The Ledger’s exclusive tour last week:

1. Post-this-on-social-media-ASAP public art

Do you think this colorful metal sculpture by Greensboro-based artist Jim Gallucci looks like a caterpillar crawling its bookish way to the front entrance? We do. The library solicited favorite book titles from community members and library staff, and Gallucci created an archway of flying book pages with titles ranging from Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” to Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

One other note, since we’re talking about the outside: If you were a frequent visitor to the old iteration of South County, forget everything you remember about how you drive into the parking lot. Now, as you approach the main lot directly in front of the building, you’ll follow the new yellow arrows and BEAR LEFT INSTEAD OF STRAIGHT. Why? Because a super cool, very 2021 feature of the new library is a drive-up book drop that deposits books directly into the building — no more big metal deposit boxes in the middle of the parking lot that staff had to keep going out and emptying.

2. Bright and airy meeting spaces

Early voting never looked this good. Seriously, in the past, early voting, children’s story time and a gazillion other community programs, meetings and events happened in a windowless, no-frills room just to the right of the library’s main entrance. Get a load of it now: Architects blew up two of the room’s walls and replaced them with thick sound-blocking glass walls and doors, and voila — there’s an airy, bright meeting room (with, oddly, exactly 71 chairs) ready for the next election or HOA barn-burner.

But wait, there’s more: There are sooo many places where people can gather now to hang out or get stuff done, including a second giant meeting room on the second floor, plus a studio where individuals or groups can make things (it’s got a laminator machine, paper cutter, die-cut machine, sink, etc.), a computer lab for group computer classes, a teen loft room, three private study rooms and a cafe/vending area near the main entrance. There’s also a silent study room on the second floor with the most comfortable bank of couches ever (trust us — we gave them a whirl), so if you’re reading something snooze-worthy in there, you might want to set your phone to (silently) buzz you awake when it’s sadly time to head home.

3. A delightful children’s area that will make you want to have a(nother) baby

Well, maybe we’re getting carried away, but the renovated children’s area is the stuff mama dreams are made of — light and bright with shelf after shelf of children’s books, tons of comfy seating (again, unavailable at the moment), banks of computers at kid-sized desks, an expanded window wall for cozy reading, and at the far end of the space, the piece-de-resistance: a giant glassed-off room for children’s story time, outfitted with a wooden tree whose circular wooden leaves spill cleverly into the main children’s area. Just wait until the therapy dogs trot in there once the “Paws to Read” program can resume. It’ll be cuteness overload.

4. Is this Architectural Digest, or what?

The first thing that hits you when you walk into the reimagined library is the brightness. The old greige walls (that’s gray + beige for those who slept through the hottest blah color of the 2010s), greige columns and greige exposed piping have been replaced with a bright white. The staircase that’s within eyeshot of the front entrance was ripped out and replaced with a new, more modern and reconfigured one made from light wood and metal.

Color is king here, and there are four hues that were clearly the decorating team’s favorites: deep fuschia, teal, spring green and orange. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see them echoed throughout in window nooks, on upholstered couches and chairs, on hallway walls and (our personal favorite) on vertical boards suspended from the ceiling.

One more note about the design, created by architect Liollio Architecture, and executed by builder/contractor Edifice Inc.: Don’t forget to look up. In some areas, architects installed decorative white panels at a tilt to make the ceiling appear slanted, for a very cool effect. When you walk upstairs to the second floor, walk over to the staff desk on your left and check out the long and skinny but oh-so-bright lights that have been installed all around the skylights to amp up the room’s brightness. Mind. Blown.

5. The tricked-out technology

Our jaws dropped when Highfill took us into the sorting room and showed us the newest in South County Regional Library technology — the AMH, or Automated Materials Handling machine (video above). Here’s how it works: You pull up in your car and drop the bodice-ripper you checked out two weeks ago (or, maybe the latest Erik Larson tome) into the return book drop slot that sends it directly into the library building. (AGAIN, YOU CAN DO THIS BECAUSE YOU DROVE LEFT AND NOT STRAIGHT IN THE MAIN PARKING LOT.)

Once it plunks through the slot, the book or CD/DVD/what-have-you lands on a conveyor belt that sends it on its merry way toward a scanner that notes what library department it belongs in and then deposits it into the correct bin for easy re-shelving.

OK, so there you have it! Visit for yourself, and you’ll probably find five favorite things of your own. Just remember when you arrive to BEAR LEFT.

Cristina Bolling is managing editor of The Ledger:

Ready to browse? All Charlotte Mecklenburg libraries are moving to “Level 2” of their reopening plan today, with patrons allowed to browse (subject to capacity limits). Community rooms are not available, and programming remains online. Branches hours: Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday – closed. Customers who don’t wish to enter the library can still take advantage of holds pickup, returning materials to designated bins and access to digital resources and participation in virtual programs.

Today’s supporting sponsors are T.R. Lawing Realty:

… and Landon A. Dunn, attorney-at-law in Matthews:

The triplex next door: You might want to tune in to the city’s land-use conversation before it’s too late.

Charlotte is drawing closer to shaking up how land can be developed — but some city leaders say the public so far hasn’t really tuned in to the magnitude of the proposed changes.

We can’t blame you if start scrolling to the next item at the mention of the “Charlotte 2040 Comprehensive Plan.” It sounds kind of dry.

But what if it were called the “Triplex Next to Your House Plan”? Or the “Affordable Housing at Your Neighborhood Entrance Plan”? Would that grab your attention?

Those are some of the changes that are being put on the table — proposals that would allow greater flexibility for owners and developers to build higher-density housing in single-family neighborhoods … without the need for a rezoning or even neighborhood input. Planners say that would increase Charlotte’s housing supply and keep housing prices from skyrocketing.

Trouble is, some city leaders say no one is paying attention, and the plan seems on a glide path toward being approved without most people aware it is going on. In an insightful article last week, Ely Portillo of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute reported on some council members’ concerns:

“If you go out on the street and ask about the 2040 plan, it’s a 99% chance they have no idea what you’re talking about,” said council member Ed Driggs at a meeting of the council’s Transportation, Planning & Environment committee. “A lot of people who will be concerned about it simply aren’t aware yet.” …

Council members like Driggs are worried that, because most people haven’t tuned in to hear the details yet, they’re going to be caught off-guard, especially by plans to eliminate single-family-only zoning. That could lead to unexpectedly strong opposition, which Driggs said he expects from the commercial building community as well.

“It just concerns me, because what we’re hearing about the response from the community is not reflective of the broader community,” said Driggs. “At some point, this plan has got to be more reflective of a bigger cross section of the community…I think we need to hear more, particularly from the business community.”

There’s a public hearing March 22 on the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, with a vote expected in April. Zoning changes could be up for a vote in the fall.

The city has assembled all kinds of reports, interactive games, coloring books and the like to make the ideas digestible — if anybody cares to digest them. —TM

Quotable: Charlotte mentioned on ‘Saturday Night Live’; ‘Gateway to Gastonia’

From a sketch on this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live,” in which comedian Kenan Thompson portrays LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of Charlotte Hornets star LaMelo Ball:

Q. LaMelo is playing really well, your son.

You’re damn right he is! And he is playing for the most storied franchise in all of basketball: the Charlotte Hornets! Charlotte, North Carolina — the regional banking capital of the world! Gateway to Gastonia! No mountains! No oceans! But enough humidity to make your balls sticky as taffy!

Q. So you think LaMelo is going to win rookie of the year?

Oh, he’s got all the awards locked up! Rookie of the year: locked up! MVP: locked up! Prettiest hog at the Mecklenburg County Fair: locked up! That means he’s got some good-ass bacon!

Incidentally, the most storied franchise in basketball beat the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night, 127-126, after being down 8 points with 1:13 left. Those CaraMelos really came through. —TM

A 1st-place reporting award 🏆 for our managing editor

Break out the champagne — congratulations are in order for The Ledger’s managing editor, Cristina Bolling, who won a North Carolina Press Association award on Friday. Cristina won first place in the “arts and entertainment reporting” category for an article she wrote for the Charlotte Observer in October 2019 that examined the status of Charlotte’s arts groups ahead of that year’s sales tax referendum.

We were fortunate enough to bring Cristina aboard The Ledger in April 2020 — and our readers know that her string of exceptional work has continued (see library review, above, for the latest example). She is a dogged reporter and a gifted writer, and we’re happy to see her talents recognized. The downside, though, is that she might now want a raise …

The Observer won 33 awards, including 1st-place for “overall general excellence” and 3rd-place for “general excellence for websites.” Queen City Nerve was recognized in 6 categories, including for its coverage of homelessness and the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Overall, the NCPA handed out nearly 1,100 awards to 109 North Carolina news organizations at an online awards ceremony Friday.

In case you’re wondering, The Ledger is not a member of the NCPA, an organization that represents the state’s print newspapers. It does not allow digital publications such as ours to become full members.

But say this for the NCPA: It knows quality reporting when it sees it. Congratulations to Cristina and to all the other winners! —TM

In brief:

  • Vaccination update: About 20,000 people were expected to have received their second doses of the Covid vaccine this weekend at Bank of America Stadium, one of several mass vaccination events lately. This one was sponsored by Atrium Health, Honeywell, Tepper Sports & Entertainment and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Statewide, about 13% of North Carolina’s population has received at least one dose, as has 9% of Mecklenburg’s population, according to state figures.

  • Creating ‘joyful’ summer school: State education leaders and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials say a plan for optional summer school is critical to help students catch up following well-documented academic declines during Covid. “It puts the onus on us as a district to create something that’s joyful,” CMS’ chief academic officer said. “How do we make sure a kid gets out of bed in the morning on a Tuesday in July and they want to come to school?” (WFAE)

  • Cooper education veto: Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill that would require school districts to offer at least partial in-person instruction. The veto sets up the possibility of a legislative override vote. Cooper said he supports in-person learning but that the bill “threatens public health.” A North Carolina teachers’ union also opposed the bill. (WFAE/AP)

  • Covid plunge continues: Mecklenburg County’s percentage of tests coming back positive for Covid fell to 5.6% last week, down from a peak of 16% on Jan. 8. The county “dodged a resurgence of infections that could have been fueled by Super Bowl watch parties,” The Observer reported.

  • Democratic leadership: North Carolina Democrats elected retired educator and former state legislator Bobbie Richardson as their state chair, the first time a Black woman has held that position. (QCity Metro)

  • Restaurants hiring: Charlotte restaurant owners say they’re hiring now that they are able to stay open later under new Covid rules. The manager of Providence Road Sundries said the restaurant “lost a lot of business” when alcohol sales had to end at 9 p.m., and the owner of the restaurant group that includes Fin and Fino, Dressler’s and Dogwood Southern Table said he’s hiring servers and kitchen workers. “We will have an opportunity to feed more people and employ more people,” he said. (WBTV)

  • McCoolest TikTok in Matthews: North Carolina’s youngest elected official, 22-year-old Matthews commissioner Ken McCool, has created a TikTok account — @commissionermccool — to connect to the younger generation. It has nearly 6,000 followers and 84,000 likes. “A recent post has him going around the community identifying his key issues set to the Mission Impossible theme,” Matthews-Mint Hill Weekly reported. “In one scene, he’s hugging a tree to represent the environment. In another scene, he’s leaving Brakeman’s Coffee to show his support of local businesses.”

Taking stock

Unless you are a day trader, checking your stocks daily is unhealthy. So how about weekly? How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:

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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Contributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory; Reporting intern: David Griffith